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How to Become a CTO: Skills Education and Experience

Three professionals talking representing Chief Technology Officer skills gained in Tulane School of Professional Advancement's information technology degree program in New Orleans, LA

Every company is now a technology company. The florist shop on Main Street depends on the internet and information systems for its success almost as much as Fortune 500 firms do. The ongoing digital transformation affects all businesses and markets. As a result, efficient and effective information technology management has become key to every business’s success.

The chief technology officer (CTO) is the senior executive charged with ensuring that the information systems forming the backbone of the company enable the employees to stay a step ahead of the competition. IT professionals and technology-focused students interested in learning how to become a CTO will quickly discover that the position’s growing importance to businesses parallels the accelerating pace of technological change.

The path to becoming a CTO typically starts with a solid foundation in education and continues by gaining experience in three areas: applying technology to solve business problems, sharpening management skills, and understanding finance and markets.

The education component begins with a bachelor’s degree in information technology or a related field. It commonly includes a master’s degree, such as Tulane University’s Master of Professional Studies in Information Technology Management.

WORKING AT THE FOREFRONT OF IT TRENDS

Companies can no longer be satisfied with simply keeping pace with technology. The digital disruption proceeds at such a fast rate that firms must anticipate new automated business tools and techniques before the innovations reach the mainstream. The CTO bears responsibility for ensuring the organization plans and implements the most effective and cost-efficient combination of technologies to achieve its goals.

A survey by research firm McKinsey & Company found that the most successful firms are those able to stay current on new technologies and incorporate the best of them in their business plans and operating processes. Among the eight “essentials of innovation at scale” highlighted by McKinsey researchers are acknowledging “innovation-led growth” as imperative to reach company goals; the development of modern business models that result in steady, reliable, and flexible revenue streams; and the ability to plan and implement innovative products and services more quickly than the competition.

The primary reason companies fail to integrate such innovations into their operations, according to the McKinsey study, is the lack of a single senior executive responsible for leading the company’s digital reinvention. This is the precise role the CTO plays and why so much of a firm’s success relies on the CTO’s ability to envision, apply, and manage a digital strategy that insulates the organization from external disruptions (think Uber versus the taxi industry) and internal disruptions, such as cloud computing and DevOps.

THE SKILLS THAT MAKE A TECHNOLOGY LEADER

One way to answer the question of how to become a CTO would be to write a long list of the most important technical and management skills the position requires. Such a list may serve as a starting point, but considering how quickly things change in nearly all industries, it may become outdated.

A strong foundation in the fundamentals of technology is just the start of preparation for a CTO position. Forbes polled current and former CTOs to determine the five key abilities the position requires:

  • Communicate the CTO role to all departments, and comprehend what each department does and how it does it.
  • Understand the technology in place and the technology available today and tomorrow at the micro and macro levels.
  • Be curious and enthusiastic about learning new approaches and concepts, with the belief that change should be embraced rather than feared.
  • Prepare for new, unforeseen roles on executive teams and technical teams, and be ready to bring creativity to the business side and the IT side of the company.
  • Always grasp the overall view, even when focusing on specific aspects of technology or business. This is particularly important when dealing with privacy and security.

Information Age highlights the importance to potential CTOs of acquiring professional certifications in technical fields and gaining firsthand experience in finance and sales. As with other professions, developing and maintaining a network of colleagues is vital to career growth, but support from professional connections is even more important for CTOs, because technology developments arise so quickly that no one person can stay current with them all.

BUILDING KNOWLEDGE THROUGH EDUCATION

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ advice for how to become a CTO points out that a bachelor’s degree in the field of computer or information science is a prerequisite for most computer and information systems positions. Additionally, most IT managers have a graduate degree. The bachelor’s degree curriculum typically covers programming basics, software design, and math. A bachelor’s in MIS adds courses in business and management.

While many IT managers earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA), Tulane University’s Master of Professional Studies in Information Technology Management (MPSIT) is specifically tailored for those currently working in IT seeking career advancement in IT leadership and management positions. The MPSIT program teaches students how to combine technology, business operations, and human resources to create integrated solutions to business problems.

MPSIT students will take a variety of courses, including Enterprise Architecture, Computer Security, IT Governance and Policy, and Legal Issues in IT. Elective courses include Healthcare Informatics, Cyber Threat and Homeland Security, Business Intelligence, and Software Development Methods.

GAINING REAL-WORLD WORK EXPERIENCE

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that CTOs may need to have in excess of 15 years of work experience in various IT roles before qualifying for the position, although smaller firms typically require less IT experience for their CTOs. IT directors and project managers are most likely to be promoted to CTO. Typical CTO duties include supervising IT department managers, reviewing products and services for technical suitability to the organization, advising the company’s top executives on allocating resources and strategic decision-making, and ensuring compliance with hardware and software licenses and applicable regulations.

As IT managers gain the experience required to qualify for the CTO role, they should look for opportunities to develop a reputation as a leader in the department. Doing so allows them to hone their ability to manage people, particularly as the head of teams and projects. The McKinsey report on the importance of a CTO to organizations identifies four CTO “styles” that are appropriate for different industries and businesses: “challengers” are primarily outward-facing; “owners” emphasize strategy, processes, and personnel; “influencers” are technology evangelists; and “enablers” focus on improving internal processes and skill sets. The study highlights the many different combinations of technical and management abilities that translate into qualifications for the CTO position.

POTENTIAL SALARY AND BENEFITS

PayScale estimates that the average annual salary for CTOs is $155,079; CTO salaries range from $86,652 to $235,647. On top of salary, average CTO bonuses total $24,147 (in a range from $2,522 to $73,766), average annual profit sharing is $19,327 (ranging from $1,932 to $60,536), and commissions average $30,000 annually ($4,500 to $85,000). The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that the demand for computer and information systems managers will grow 12 percent between 2016 and 2026, which is faster than the 7 percent average for all occupations in the period.

As a top executive position, CTOs often benefit from perks available only to corporate officers, including expense allowances, access to company-owned automobiles and aircraft, and membership in country clubs and other exclusive establishments. Also, like other top officials, CTOs generally work more than 40 hours per week.

THE PATH TO BECOMING A CTO BEGINS WITH A PLAN

From the perspective of a new IT worker or a student investigating a technology career, the path to becoming a CTO can appear daunting. As with any ambitious career goal, the journey begins with a roadmap laying out the many individual steps to take along the way. For most aspiring CTOs, the initial stages occur in an academic setting, first with a bachelor’s degree in a computer or IT field, and then a master’s degree that prepares future managers for real-world work environments.

Challenging, ever-changing, unpredictable, and multifaceted are adjectives that would cause some students and workers to turn their career aspirations in another direction. Yet these same characteristics fire up the professional ambitions of others who aspire to reach the height of their field. They understand that times of transformation are times of opportunity for those who are ready to work hard and prepare for success.

You have what it takes to enjoy a challenging career in IT, and the Tulane School of Professional Advancement can prepare you for leadership in the field of Information Technology Management. We’d love to speak with you to help you decide if this is ideal for your professional career. Request information about SoPA or call us today at (504) 303-4224 to learn more.

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